Equestrian sports becoming more popular among city's youngsters

Hong Kong's interest in equestrian sports has taken off since it hosted events for the2008 Olympics, writes Charley Lanyon

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 9:22am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 9:22am

When it was announced that Hong Kong would host the equestrian events for the 2008 Olympics, some wondered if the decision was a concession to the city's intense lobbying. To be sure, it had a reputation as a centre of horse racing and the Hong Kong Jockey Club was willing to pour money into infrastructure (eventually putting in more than HK$1.2 billion), but few Hongkongers had any idea what equestrian sports were about, let alone the finer points of showjumping or dressage.

As the first events rolled out, local spectators initially seemed mystified: surely all that prancing by the horses was just the warm up for a race, they whispered.

The confusion was short-lived and those who speculated that Hong Kong people cared about horses only as far as they could bet on them were proved wrong as fans and curious onlookers filled the stands at Sha Tin and Beas River for every competition.

Although it is the Year of the Horse, racing aside, horses haven't been part of life in Hong Kong. But the Jockey Club has laid the foundations for an equine culture through its support of public riding schools, educational outreach and a programme to retrain retired racers for public enjoyment. Coupled with the inspiring spectacle of Olympic events, an increasing number of children have been signing up for riding classes and competing in amateur equestrian competitions since 2008.

International equestrian competitions are also gaining a foothold. Consider the Longines Hong Kong Masters, which starts today. Only in its second year, it has become Asia's premier showjumping event and will feature some of the biggest names in the sport. Among the competitors is local hero Kenneth Cheng Man-kit, who was part of the team that won Hong Kong's first equestrian medals when they took bronze in team jumping at the 2010 Asia Games in Guangzhou.

Cheng started riding at the tender age of four. "I was obviously very young, but I remember it being the first time I ever sat on a horse and just loving it."

By the age of 18 he had claimed a place in the region's top 20 in the 2006 Asian Games in Doha. This success took him to show jumping competitions all over the world, so he knows first-hand how Hong Kong's horse culture compares to that of other countries.

"Hong Kong is a very small place, and while horse racing is a huge success, equestrian sport is still developing. But this is changing quickly. With the help of mega horse events like the 2008 Olympic Games and the Longines Hong Kong Masters, equestrian sport is finally getting into the spotlight," says Cheng.

But there are major differences between Hong Kong and the other "horse capitals" in Europe that may be insurmountable. "Europe has the advantage that equestrian competition is a very old sport that has been very popular through its history. Due to this, Europe has made equestrian sport a huge business, involving countless top shows, professional riders, competition stables, trainers, horse breeders, and so on. Europe also has the advantage that countries are all relatively close to each other and can be accessed by horse truck."

Still, Hong Kong's relationship with horses is changing quickly with more people looking to horse riding for pleasure and as physical activity rather than as a means to gamble. "In Hong Kong, due to an increase in demand, the Jockey Club's senior team has recently welcomed a fifth team member, Raena Leung. There is also constant demand for additional members in the junior equestrian training squad and a long waiting list in public and private riding schools due to such high demand," Cheng says.

Of course, it is impossible to talk about horse culture in Hong Kong without mentioning racing. Horse racing has been an integral part of Hong Kong life since colonial days - the Jockey Club was founded in 1884 - and betting brings in revenue of more than HK$80 billion a year for the club. While riding for pleasure and equestrian sports are experiencing a surge among young people, the opposite may be true for horse racing.

Benny Tung, a well-known race commentator and blogger for the Jockey Club and the son of one of Hong Kong's most famous race commentators, the late Bill Tung Biu, fears Hong Kong youngsters are turning away from the sport of kings.

"I'm only 28 years old and there are only a few young people like me with a passion for horse racing. Only old men participate; young people feel it is outdated," he says. Young people wanting a bit of a flutter often feel football is easier, he adds.

However, the facts would suggest otherwise. The Jockey Club reports that racing turnover rose more than 12 per cent last season and attendance at the city's two racecourses exceeded two million, the highest in a decade.

Today, young people such as Tung who are drawn to racing seem to have a deeper connection to horses than just to gamble on them in the hope of getting rich. Although he passes his days at the race tracks, Tung's affection is for the animals. "My dad and I would stand in the public area of Sha Tin racecourse and just look at the horses ... I love horses ... They have character ... the character of horses is like a hero."

Gillian Carlisle, operations manager for the Beas River Equestrian Centre, a members-only riding school run by the Jockey Club, can testify to the growing interest in horse riding as sport and recreation. That's why the club now operates three public riding schools - Tuen Mun, Lei Yue Mun and Pok Fu Lam - alongside its members-only facility Beas River.

And there is still more interest than they can accommodate: "At a normal weekend show we have over 200 entries. There has been a huge rejuvenation in interest around equestrian shows."

Carlisle attributes the growing popularity of horse riding to its broad accessibility. "Lessons can start from six years old, and the wonderful thing about horse riding is there is no upper age limit and it's available to every member of the community - you can be able-bodied or disabled and you don't have to be particularly sporty."

Club literature advocates riding as a way to burn fat, build muscle and improve balance. "Although it may seem as though the rider is not engaging in any physical exercise, an hour's activity can burn similar calories to a 30-minute jog or cycle.

"Simply being out and about enjoying the great outdoors will boost a rider's general well-being. Furthermore, developing a relationship and sense of trust between horse and rider is highly rewarding. Learning to respect, control and care for an animal much larger and stronger than the rider can have a profound affect on a person's confidence and attitude when dealing with others."

Unlike Europe or North America, horses in Hong Kong are almost always flown in - these are primarily thoroughbreds bred for racing, rather than equestrian competition. But to meet the other needs of the public the Jockey Club introduced a programme to retrain racehorses for other work after they retire.

It is the largest and oldest of programme of its kind in the world and, as a result, horses in local riding schools are mostly of racing stock. Two-thirds of the 300 horses kept by the club for riding lessons and equestrian competition are retired racers. Ponies make up the remainder.

It can be daunting for novice riders, especially when their first horse experience is often on a towering thoroughbred.

"That can be hard on the rider," Carlisle concedes. "But after thoroughbreds are retrained, they can actually be excellent equestrian horses ... Without them we wouldn't have equestrian events in Hong Kong."

Former racehorses are also used to train the next generation of young jockeys. "Horses who have retired and gone back into the equestrian world are now training riders to go into the racing world," Carlisle says.

Such programmes were a revelation for Carlisle who arrived in Hong Kong three years ago. "No [other] place in the world would put in this amount of money and effort in to retraining these horses for the good of the community."

And Hongkongers are gaining a reciprocal appreciation of the steeds. Just check out one of the public riding schools on a weekend. "People will go on family outings just to have a wee walk around the horses. That wouldn't happen anywhere else in the world," Carlisle says.